Tech in check: KPMG Malaysia's head of digital strategy Alvin Gan

As KPMG Malaysia's head of digital strategy, Alvin Gan (pictured) spearheads the implementation of digital strategy across the firm. Gan has over 20 years of experience providing strategy and technology-advisory services to clients across multiple sectors and industries.

He has worked closely with many CIOs and technology leaders to harness technology disruption and more effectively manage resources to drive agility and improved business performance. Gan is a strong advocate of the idea of a creative CIO being a transformational business leader and technology strategist, whose responsibility is to enable companies to move beyond "keeping the lights on" and to producing new business values.

In this edition of Tech in check, Gan gets candid with A+M about why he thinks digitalisation is a long term journey and the challenges faced in today's digital world.

Check out some previous editions of Tech in check here:
REA Group Asia’s chief technology officer Shen Tham
INTI’s head of digital marketing Nicholas Goh
U Mobile’s head of marketing services Jenny Chin

A+M: What was your first digital role like?

Gan: It feels like yesterday when I was appointed KPMG in Malaysia’s head of digital strategy to spearhead the digital transformation of the firm. It’s been three years since I was entrusted with this enormous yet intriguing responsibility, but my being in the digital sphere has always been what I do for a living.

The difference is, when I started in this field more than 20 years ago, it wasn’t regarded as digital but plain old information technology, more commonly known as IT. Back then, the focus used to be about a particular technology at one given time and the conversations would centre on just that.

For example, cloud technology was solely about having services beyond your local computer and being accessible over the Internet. Fast forward to present day, to the digital era, the premise has remained largely the same.  The difference is you’ve got all these digital technologies or disruptors intertwining with each other.

In smart cities, you would see multiple disruptors at work. Internet of things when your fridge senses you’re running out of milk, cloud technology when it sends an order for a carton of milk at the store, blockchain technology when it applies smart contract to execute the order and transaction with your bank, drone technology when the store delivers the milk to your doorsteps, and it goes on.

Just like the conversation has evolved over these years, my role in the technology industry has also evolved to a digital one. Today, it’s no longer about not being able to colour outside the box as what it used to be 20 years ago, but making the box a little bigger each time by inspiring others to dream and challenge the norm.

A+M: What was your biggest tech booboo?

Gan: When KPMG decided to develop our very own mobile app, we were driven by excitement to develop a comprehensive platform that would connect our staff and stakeholders. We were aiming for that big bang approach, and thus were trying to put together multiple functions and content for the intended users.

However, mid-way through the development phase, we realised we needed to have a more focused approach or risk having the project deflate before it is even launched. This experience taught me that technological transformations are meant to be a journey. Beyond that, I also learnt that we should remain inspired and keep challenging the norm.
Mishaps are to be expected and should be welcomed because they pave the way for opportunities to improve, which is the natural way for digital disruptors to work at peak.

Take big tech companies for example. Notice they apply quick iterations to most products launched. So, what that means is you do not have a perfect product when you first release it. Just look at mobile applications for context. Typically when they are released, within a short period of time, updates or patches would follow suit. Have a quick launch, learn from your booboos, improve and repeat!

A+M: How did you overcome it and what did you learn from it?

Gan: The key is to obtain support from the leadership to accept a certain tolerance to failure and how we need to learn quickly from it. In today’s environment, we must be fluid and adaptable to encourage the next generation to think creatively outside the box.

Failure is part and parcel of what organisations have to experience in order to improve, but when it comes to tech transformation, fail within the initial early stages because time in its essence is money. It makes no sense to invest three years of time and money into a tech transformation that doesn’t work, or is out of date when it’s finished. If a three-month project fails, it’s possible to reflect, learn, and quickly try again.

Over the years, I have also realised most users expect instant results and outcomes when it comes to digital, this can’t be further from the truth. It is clear that while technology is a driver and enabler of transformation, it’s not the answer in its own right.
Successful technology transformation in today’s fast-paced world requires a fresh approach. One which is about the business model and people, not just technology.

Digitalisation is a long-term journey. It is not an immediate task that we need to fulfil just for the sake of it. By doing so, you could immediately overlook at least two key elements - value creation and culture - that digitalisation could potentially bring out.In order to truly harness any type of digital tech, it is vital to ensure that we truly understand the value it brings to the organisation. The other key area on culture is to actively change and innovate.
Technology isn’t about the quick ROIs when you invest in digital disruptors.

For instance, if a company invested in robotic process automation (RPA), it shouldn’t be about “How many employees can I reduce,” rather it should be about “How many employees can I free up so it takes them away from mundane daily tasks and put more emphasis around work that requires critical thinking and strategising.”

A+M: What are some of the common challenges you face with digital today?

Gan: Based on the Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey 2018-The transformational CIO, 52% of the respondents says that alignment of business to technology is extremely effective in having an effective IT organisation. Wouldn’t it be great if our people were able to talk business and think IT, and vice versa? Now more than ever, there is a strong need to blur the lines between them to truly realise the full potential of digitalisation. Communication between us and our stakeholders is crucial to fully align objectives and achieve projected outcome. And that brings me to the topic of talent.

One of the main issues faced by CEOs today is the lack in talent pool. The numbers we see from our CIO survey notes that 65% of IT leaders report skills shortage is holding them back, up from 59% in 2016. This trend is also evident in this part of the world, most IT leaders acknowledge that they are experiencing technology skills shortage, with 69% reporting insufficient talent to achieve their objectives.

The survey also states that data analytics is the most in-demand technology skill today. This is not surprising as nearly 40% of IT leaders reveal that they suffer from skills shortfalls in this area.

A+M: Are there any digital trends which excite you or that you are wary of?

Gan: Industry 4.0 has provided endless opportunities in many areas. For instance, today, new job opportunities are made available within the palm of your hands through various mobile applications.  Organisations have improved efficiency through the use of automated robotics solutions or RPA. Employees are reskilled to do more analytical jobs rather than mundane tasks and with these new skills, employees can raise their value to the company. With predictive data, companies can be proactive rather than reactive to their businesses.

What excites me the most with all these is the fact that customer experience is more important than ever as companies are striving to differentiate themselves in a challenging and crowded market. Secondly, AI will gain more clout with some predicting that 85% of all transactions will be AI based by 2020. I have a strong feeling 2019 will be the year we see more AI being deployed at large.

I have no doubt that the rise of conscious consumers will continue as they base their purchase decisions on multiple factors beyond price. These new consumers, led and influenced by Millennials, are exerting influence on companies and forcing them to take action to be relevant.

 A+M: Any top tips for marketers and brands embracing digital?

Gan: Over the last few years, we’ve heard about the disruption that is coming. In reality, we are already being disrupted. For marketers and brands embracing digital, the tools, strategies and technologies required to be successful in this new world are already available. Your customers are spoilt for choice today.

They live in the world where selection of a product/service and its brand needs to speak directly to them and understand them better than they understand themselves. Understanding the customers’ journey and matching supply and demand is key in driving the value of digitalisation. So, it is important to keep listening and ensure you’re tuned into the right communication channel to actively engage with them.

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